Girl With a Pearl Earring tells the story of Griet, a 16-year-old Dutch girl who becomes a maid in the house of the painter Johannes Vermeer. Her calm and perceptive manner not only helps her in her household duties, but also attracts the painter’s attention. Though different in upbringing, education and social standing, they have a similar way of looking at things. Vermeer slowly draws her into the world of his paintings – the still, luminous images of solitary women in domestic settings.
In contrast to her work in her master’s studio, Griet must carve a place for herself in a chaotic Catholic household run by Vermeer’s volatile wife Catharina, his shrewd mother-in-law Maria Thins, and their fiercely loyal maid Tanneke. Six children (and counting) fill out the household, dominated by six-year-old Cornelia, a mischievous girl who sees more than she should.
On the verge of womanhood, Griet also contends with the growing attentions both from a local butcher and from Vermeer’s patron, the wealthy van Ruijven. And she has to find her way through this new and strange life outside the loving Protestant family she grew up in, now fragmented by accident and death.
As Griet becomes part of her master’s work, their growing intimacy spreads disruption and jealousy within the ordered household and even – as the scandal seeps out – ripples in the world beyond.
This was a very quick read for me. Once I started I just didn’t want to put the book down again. The pace is slow, no exciting things happen (at least nothing that we would call exciting nowadays). It describes the life of Griet working in Vermeer’s household, her daily tasks and the internal quarrels. The story is given life by the various characters living in that household.
I liked how everybody was described, even though some of the characters were very unlikeable (from what I have read, Chevalier has taken quite some poetic license as Catharina obviously was not nearly as bad as she was in the book).
A few things I found hard to believe.
Cornelia, one of the children, was such a sly creature, always on the lookout to hurt Griet and get her into trouble. Can a little six year old girl be that cunning and mean?
The ability of Griet to help Vermeer in improving his paintings felt strange to me. She might have had an innate and unconscious understanding of composition and colors, but that she immediately knew what was missing in her painting whereas Vermeer took two days and a visual cue to realize this felt unrealistic to me.
The relationship between Vermeer and Catharina was extremely ambivalent. Obviously he had a say in things because when he put his foot down it worked, but at the same time he seemed to be afraid of his wife. Maybe it was just that he was so wrapped up in his own world that he just didn’t care about anything else, but then I would have expected him to be frank about his art and give a damn about the consequences. However, he kept a lot of things secret in order to not kick up a stink with his wife. Then again, when it came to Griet wearing the earrings, he never even considered the consequences for her. All this threw a bad light on him in my eyes. Being wrapped up in your own little artistic world is fair and good as long as you don’t have a household with a dozen kids and a few bickering women to take care of. As much as I understood his behaviour I could never bring myself to really like him.
All that aside I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. If you like slow paced books with interesting characters this is definitely worth a try.
To read the first chapter and see the paintings mentioned in the story, go to Tracy Chevalier’s website.
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